My paper analyses the meaning making practices operating within internet forums for ‘urban explorers’. An influential user guide to urban exploration defines the activity as: “seeking out, visiting and documenting interesting human-made spaces, most typically abandoned buildings…” (Ninjalicious 2005: 4) There is nothing to stop individuals visiting modern ruins and making their own sense of these abandoned ‘”non-places” (Auge 1995), however to participate in the urban exploration community by submitting on-line accounts of visits one has to learn to conform to the ordained ‘ways of seeing’ (Berger 1972) operating within this community. I will present a case study examining the ways in which stable descriptive conventions are created for the signification of abandoned underground nuclear fallout monitoring bunkers within one such internet urban exploration (urbex) forum: www.28dayslater.co.uk.
My study was ethnographic in aim, seeking to learn the ‘rules’ by which accounts of urban exploration forays are constructed and circulated on-line. The self-publishing opportunities for urban explorers on internet blogs and forums has opened up direct access to a rich mass of participant ‘accounts’ readily available for study. In the blow-by-blow exchange and debate of posted site visit accounts on its web forums, the process of operation of urbex as an ‘interpretive community’ (Fish 1980) is laid bare.
Writing and circulating accounts of exploration to unusual (and/or perilous) places is nothing new. Precursors can be seen, for example, in the autobiographical accounts of grand touring and tomb raiding proto-archaeologists like Belzoni in the Nineteenth century (Romer 2005).
However, urbex participants regard the rise of internet based forums as a significant development. Deyo (n.d.) echoes many commentators on urbex who see the rise of self-publishing (initially via fanzine, then more latterly with the rise of internet based outlets for account sharing) as the key differentiator between their hobby being trespass or exploration, for: “Exploration serves no purpose when its results remain obscure…Today, the increased flow of information has uplifted urban exploration, and the discourse that surrounds it. What was once kids breaking into warehouses and smashing windows is now serious research…With Infiltration magazine, then, the urban explorer truly parted company with the mundane trespasser.
Ninjalicious became an explorer when he faithfully published his observations and enriched posterity by them. The trespasser, by contrast, always consigned his story to silence.”
Dodge (2006) has pointed to the importance of studying urbex site visit reports as ‘accounts’. For Orbuch, accounts are “verbal and written statements as social explanations of events” (1997:456), and in particular arise where the actor is keen to explain behaviours that might otherwise be seen as deviant. Accounting thus relates to the performance (and repair) of self: Goffman (1971) and Garfinkel (1967). In this tradition a study of accounting behavior within urbex should investigate the content of the account, the conditions under which the account will be made, and the conditions governing whether the account will be accepted / acceptable, and my study attempts this.
My paper will show how at least this one type of urban exploration is structured by clear representational rules circulated via its on-line community, and (applying Bourdieu 2010, and Foucault 2002) that that culture is reproduced through a mix of conscious and structural aesthetic and epistemic control.
At the conscious level the site’s moderator exercises a subtle form of editorial quality control over submissions to the forum. Elders also guide (and at times chastise or exclude) newer entrants who have yet to master the social conventions of these virtual ‘meetings’.
At the ‘unconscious’ (structural) level the practice of this on-line accounting is shaped by the influence of pre-existing received aesthetic tropes absorbed from mainstream culture – the picturesque, the sublime, the notion of a ‘good photograph’, and it is also shaped by the very architecture of the software upon which these forums are based. Submitted accounts can only become part of the community’s knowledge base, to exist at all, if they can be sorted and stored by urbex genre, site location and alphabetized in accordance with in inherently positivist (scientistic) logic. Also, photographs are held in these accounts alongside text, rather than separately ranked and ordered by purely artistic or phenomenological criteria. The epistemic role of such pre-ordering software structures warrants further investigation – for the database derived platform style in use as the base for the 28dayslater.co.uk site was observed in the study as the base also for many other collaborative forums.
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Dodge, M. 2006. Exposing the secret city: urban exploration as space hacking Power Point presentation to University of Manchester Geography Department Seminar, 22 February 2006
Deyo, L.B. n.d. Psychopathology & the Hidden City. Jinx Magazine (on-line) undated but accessed 23 July 2009 (available at: http://www.jinxmagazine.com/ue_pathology.html)
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Romer, J. 2005. Valley of the Kings. London: Phoenix Press.